Everyman, Cheltenham, and touring
The occasion of Pinter's 75th birthday last year was greeted by a deafening silence from England's theatrical establishment, with one honourable exception. A year on and productions of the grand old man's work are breaking out all over. First came the widely reviled Pinter's People, closely followed by The Dumb Waiter at the Trafalgar Studios; now comes a revival by Peter Hall of Old Times, a play he first staged 1970, with The Hothouse at the NT still to come, as well as The Caretaker, first seen in Sheffield, at the Tricycle Theatre.
Now here's a theory: Pinter's work can be divided into three categories; those plays that begin with the definite article; those that begin with the indefinite article and those that begin with neither. Only the work in one of these categories can lay claim to greatness - discuss. I was prompted to think on things Pinter by two things: a casual remark by a senior broadcaster, who, asked for her 'biggest secret', opined that the playwright was 'overrated', and the broadcast of a new film of Celebration, his last play. After watching Celebration again - I also have a recording of the original Almeida production - I have to admit that, acting aside; it was poor stuff.
Seeing Old Times again, I have to admit that it didn't alter an impression, formed after seeing the 2005 production at the Donmar, that it was a minor work. In essence the play is an early masterpiece, The Caretaker, reworked. Two people share a space into which a third person enters, threatening the status quo. A power struggle ensues, resulting either in the departure, or the demotion of one of the original inhabitants. In The Caretaker, the stranger is the tramp, Davies; in Old Times, the intruder is Anna, who has decided after being out of touch for seventeen years, to visit her friend Kate at the home she shares with her husband Deeley. The major difference between the two is that whereas the former is a slice of demi-monde London life, Old Times is decidedly more upmarket; Deeley is a successful writer/producer who lives in a nice house on the coast.
The underlying theme is one that Pinter explores time and again in his work - one thinks of The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, A Slight Ache. Central too to the struggle for power is the battle for memory, the past, and the use of language as a weapon. Rather than using it to communicate, Pinter's great insight was the realisation that speech is often used as a means of avoidance, as "a constant stratagem to avoid nakedness", as Pinter himself puts it. Thus Deeley and Anna repeatedly fail to respond to one another's speeches and remember incidents which may or may not be true and which are then appropriated by the other person.
Much has been made of Pinter's infamous pauses. In a recent interview, the author grumbled that too much had been made of them - this a bit rich for one who once admonished Donald Pleasance because he, Pinter, had specified three dots but he, Pleasance, had only delivered two. Hall takes the tip and takes the play at a fair lick. There are precious few pauses here and Susannah Harker (Anna) repeatedly delivers her parts in a headlong rush. The production, which clocks in at just over 90 minutes with one interval, takes a while to get going and it is only really in the second half that the screws begins to tighten. Neil Pearson, best known to some of us for TV's Drop the Dead Donkey, is a little too amiable. Harker ably conveys a glassy amiability, all surface politesse, while Janie Dee, is remote, dispassionate, as her part dictates, until the dénouement.
Lucy Hall's design is faithful to the 1970s setting stipulated. One often had the sense though of older times. Pinter has put on record his admiration of the work of Noël Coward and his rhythms are also informed by other writers contemporary with The Master with whom he became deeply familiar during his time as a jobbing repertory actor. This year offers a fascinating opportunity to take a fresh look at the familiar. Pinter admirers may well want to take a new look at Old Times. Me, I'm looking forward to The Caretaker and The Hothouse.
Reviewer: Pete Wood